What makes The Kalevala important to Finnish foragers?

picture of Polypodium vulgare, cranberries and Polypodium vulgare (kallioimarre) sauce

February 28, 2019

Today, 28th of February, is the day we Finns celebrate our national epos The Kalevala. It consists of Karelian and Finnish oral folklore and mythology – an epic poetry full of affluent spell casting and singing, put together by our beloved national poet, doctor and the pioneer of Finnish botany Elias Lönnrot.

The Kalevala is filled with adventures of affection and devotion to humiliation and combat, so what makes it important to us at Helsinki Wildfoods? It is filled with intriguing references to edible Finnish herbs and healing wild plants. Did you know? J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the famous pieces The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and creator of cherished elvish languages enjoyed the numinous world of Kalevala and our distinct Finnish language – spoken by only five million people in the world!

The Kalevala carries wisdom that can still be useful when trying to find out the secrets of sustainable wellbeing.

Even though The Kalevala was published almost two centuries ago, the 20 thousand verses divided into 50 songs carry wisdom that can still be useful when trying to find out the secrets of sustainable wellbeing. To celebrate this special day of Finnish folklore, we want to share some of Lönnrot’s insight on Finnish herbs and veggies that we will soon be teaching also in our workshops of the spring and summer 2019!


Stinging Nettle, nokkonen

picture of nettle and spelt in cookingDrying nettles in low temperatures remove the stinginess but also increase the shelf life of these nutrient rich vegetables. Nettle can be used widely in cooking like spinach, as a spice or as tea and also in DIY natural skincare. When soaked in a small amount of water, dried nettle returns to a fresh-like texture. You can also remove the stinginess by dipping nettles into a boiling water for 30 seconds.

According to Lönnrot, the nettle was used to cure keratoconus and pneumonia. He found that nettle seeds that pop up in late summer were suitable for making worm medicine and that substituting fresh nettle for kale was the perfect way to use nettle in his cooking. While the edges of fresh nettle leaves may sting, Lönnrot solved this by straining cream and oil on top of the leaves.


Ground Elder, vuohenputki

Goutweed is another Finnish herb that adds a nice and fresh flavour to different types foods like stews, soups and salads. Goutweed is super delicious with tomato-based foods and like the Finnish name vuohenputki (goat’s pipe) hints, with goat cheese. Bonus: if you like tea, ground elder can be enjoyed as a herbal tea also!

Lönnrot advised to replace cabbage and spinach with fresh ground elder leaves in the spring time. We must agree with him; fresh and small ground elder leaves are one of most appetising vegetables of the spring. The taste of newborn ground elder leaves is similar to carrot and celery.

picture of Pauliina Toivanen foraging ground elder


Birch, koivu

picture of birch whisk and a woman in saunaBirch leaves have a magical scent which is reminiscent of our beautiful summers here in Finland.

According to our national poet, fresh birch leaves were helpful when used externally – especially to heal rheumatic pains and other aches. Lönnrot called the birch treatment sweat bath which reminds also of the most common Finnish relaxation ritual that consists of hitting ourselves with a whisk made out of birch leaves in the heat and sweat of the sauna. Even today, the whipping with birch leaves is one of our most popular and cherished sauna traditions which has both cleansing and calming but also social dimensions.  For starters and as a winter substitute for the fresh whisk, birch is heavenly both in baths as well as in löyly water. Birch leaves can be used in cooking as a spice both in savoury and sweet dishes or as a detoxifying tea as well as in natural skincare treatments.

In cooking, Lönnrot recommended to use the birch leaves both fresh and dried.


Spruce, kuusi

Spruce buds, the sour candies of the early spring, which were traditionally used in cough related illnesses. However, in Flora Fennica, Lönnrot recommends preparing a healing ointment from spruce’s resin. He used the spruce resin to cure all kinds of wounds and even today, spruce resin is used widely in Finnish natural skincare to heal burns, rashes and cuts.

picture of little spruce buds in the spring time in Finland


Wild Berries, metsämarjat

Nick Victorzon preparing blackcurrant sauce, picture from the Villiyrtit book (WSOY,2017)Finnish wild berries are the tastiest! What makes them even more superior is that the recent studies have revealed that the wild berries grown in the northernmost regions of the world have larger amounts of health related ingredients such as polyphenols compared to berries grown in the warmer latitudes. Wild berries are a perfect and healthy snack as is. They can be sprinkled on top of porridges, granolas and desserts.

Lönnrot suggested that berry juices are helpful in fevers. The final poem of The Kalevala spins a yarn of a shepherd called Marjatta (marja=berry), who finds a lingonberry from a hummock, eats it and gets pregnant. In traditional folk medicine, wild berries such as lingonberry and blueberry were seen as thirst quenchers and cooling remedies.


Learn Finnish

Last but not least, to warm up your frozen cheeks, here is a little poem for you from Kalevala’s first chapter to get your Finnish studies going. If you feel as festive as we do, you can even try to sing it!

Kauas kuuluvi sanoma, ulos viestit vierähtävät
Väinämöisen laulannasta, urohon osoannasta.
Viestit vierähti suvehen, sai sanomat Pohjolahan.


Learn more

Would you like to learn more about the many uses and benefits of Finnish wild vegetables, herbs and berries? Check out our herbarium and dive deeper into the taiga. Our Finnish friends can also check out our book Villiyrtit – hyvinvointia kotikulmilta (WSOY) which presents 33 different wild plants, 30 recipes and also tips on how to use wild plants in natural skincare. Our Nettle e-book is available both in Finnish and English!

picture of Finnish lake in the summer: a Finnish man rowing a boat

Lönnrot, Elias: Flora Fennica. Nabu Press 1860.
Hannus, Huotari, Nyman, Toivanen, Victorzon: Villiyrtit – hyvinvointia kotikulmilta. WSOY 2017.

Photos: Aino Huotari, Pauliina Toivanen 

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